Last month, The New York Times ran a devastating exposé on the inhuman conditions faced by workers who make Apple products. While this is not a big surprise, the depth of the horrific environmental impact documented in the article and in other media outlets is truly monstrous. Employees making Apple products work crazy overtime, often without a single day off, and live in crowded "dorms." The paper reported that "under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records." Factory explosions are common and credible investigations have found that at one plant alone, "over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis."
Yet, at a delirious "best of times" shareholders meeting last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook reported that the company has accumulated $100 billion in cash. Nary a peep was heard from the podium about the exploitation of the workforce that provided Apple with this massive surplus, even though one former Apple executive had told the Times, "we've known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they're still going on." Instead of addressing the labor situation, Apple's response to these reports has been to employ an industry-sponsored "Fair Labor Association" to cover its tracks.
Ironically, this grotesque discrepancy — slave-like conditions for the Chinese workers resulting in a $100 billion surplus — occurred at a company often touted as one of the "best places to work." The website Glassdoor, whose motto is, an "inside look at jobs and companies," found Apple to be the tenth-best company to work for in the country in 2012. I guess they did not run the survey in China.
This is perverse responsibility, not personal responsibility.
Maybe Apple is not bothered by this situation because the affected workers are Chinese. Or maybe it is because CEO Cook and corporate co-workers are just different than you and me. A recent study presented at the National Academy of Science, "Higher Social Class Predicts Unethical Behavior," unearthed startlingly clear evidence, gleaned from a variety of studies, that the elite are more likely to cheat and steal than the rest of us. But most likely it is the prevailing mantra that any corporate profit-making activity today is considered ethical by the elite, no matter who or what gets hurt.
Yet, while the One Percent eschews ethical responsibility, members of the 99 Percent are constantly upbraided for their "failures" of personal responsibility — think of the recent attacks on poor homeowners, retired public workers, and practitioners of birth control.
In view of all of this, it is especially galling to think about the historic arc of the personal responsibility argument, which big business has manipulated to its advantage. I have seen this first-hand in the legal arena. During the last few decades, chamber-of-commerce types — working in the pursuit of greater profit and in concert with anti-regulation campaigns — developed a campaign to target parts of the country in which courtroom juries were holding business accountable for misdeeds. Molded by neuropsychologists and vetted by focus groups, lawyers for the One Percent developed a crafty and perverse narrative of personal responsibility to shift legal blame from companies to victims. Hurt due to a defective car tire? You must have been driving too fast. Paralyzed by unsafe medications? You must not have read the warning label. Sexually harassed? You must have asked for it.
These defense lawyers' arguments were often persuasive and successful because they tapped into an honest human vein — most of us want everyone to be responsible for their actions; it is the right thing. It is also true that from time to time all of us fail a "perfection" test of personal responsibility, hurting others or ourselves. So these companies built a clever legal narrative that, combined with high-profile advertising, op-eds, and a laser-like attention to judicial selection, have practically eliminated the ability of working- and middle-class Americans in many parts of the country to receive compensation when they were injured.
To be fair, examination of ethical conduct is complicated, and not just at the corporate level. Most of us try to be good citizens. We don't pick other's pockets or dump our trash in the yard of another. When we realize our conduct is hurting others we try to stop. When someone questions our ethics we earnestly consider their point. And there are still gray areas. I carry an iPhone in my pocket. Since a cell phone is important to me, can I even find one that is not produced in deplorable conditions? Probably not. So I try to do the best I can, working with others who feel the same. For those of us who want an ethical and just society, progress will come from a combination of the personal and the political.
But no matter the complexity, any ethical gaze must contain core matters on which we all agree. The lack of social responsibility ripples through society, complicating all decent conduct. Here, Apple fails. Theirs is a perverse responsibility.
Jay Youngdahl is a lawyer and writer who holds a JD from the University of Texas and MDiv from Harvard University. Currently he is a Fellow at the Initiative for Resonsible Investment at Harvard and writes the "Raising the Bar" column for the East Bay Express in Oakland, CA.